A ghost story for Halloween: 'Welcome to the scariest night of your life...'
PUBLISHED: 11:40 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 17:18 31 October 2019
Thrill-seekers gather outside the long-empty Great White Horse hotel in Ipswich. Will they all be going home?
"WWRRAARRGGH." The scream is heard three doors down, at number 72, but no-one's really blaming Lizzie. She's only four years old, and curious to discover what her half-brother is getting up to in the bathroom with his pal. She never expected to come face to face with a Killer Clown. A bloodless-white face… yet with the surprised eyes of the sibling she idolises.
"Lizzie?! Told you to keep out of our way… " sighs Mark as his wailing sister flees for the security of Mum. Halloween is breaking all the rules. Why is her brother, calm and predictable, suddenly so crazy? She doesn't like it.
"She'll be all right," grunts Tom, barely diverting his gaze from the mirror. Time's cracking on and he's not quite the terrifying zombie he imagined. Hence desperate remedial work with cotton pads filched from his sister's dressing-table to mix the perfect blend of green and grey. Who would have thought the living dead had it so hard?
Mark and Tom, friends for more than 11 years, have long been daydreaming about this night. Mark spotted it on Facebook. An event company taking over a disused Ipswich hotel for a Halloween haunting. Expect spectral shocks and surprises galore. All for £25. Dressing-up encouraged.
Bit of a hike from their home, admittedly, but Mark's father can always be press-ganged for a "Dad's taxi" trip − especially when he hears the event has a Dickensian theme. Cue a history lecture about how Charles Dickens came to Ipswich in the 1830s, stayed at the Great White Horse Hotel and set part of his first novel there. And called it an "overgrown tavern".
"There's a great comedy moment where a man, Mr Pickwick, goes into a woman's room by mistake. Quite racy for the time."
The lads don't care. They like The Muppet Christmas Carol, but all this "If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose" rubbish... no. Adrenalin rushes are what they're after. Mind you, Tom knows that for Mark there's added attraction.
She heard about the Halloween jaunt. She decided to go. And that means her entourage of Chanelle wannabees will tag along. As will many other students who think it's a great idea.
"You're a lovesick fool," Tom tells his friend. "She's never - EVER - going to look in your direction. She hooks up with those 20-year-olds from the college who have part-time jobs and cars and money."
But Mark knows you can't explain attraction by using logic. She unknowingly seized his heart the day she first waltzed into the school, as if she owned the place. She's everything he's not: confident, devil-may-care, downer of Jack Daniels, an Instagram influencer for goodness' sake.
But still he dreams.
Forlorn, The Great White Horse building has clung on against the odds.
As far back as 1967 it was fighting for life. Trust House Forte, planning a new hotel on the edge of town, wanted to knock down the Great White Horse and its 57 bedrooms (only seven en suite — a fatal weakness).
That skirmish was won, thanks in no small part to the Dickens link, but the glory days had flown.
Since then the ground floor has been converted into shops that failed to stick - a Starbucks and a camping store have been and gone - and the hotel closed in 2008.
"Brilliant! Super-spooky," says the teenage zombie to the clown as they stare at this relic, having been dropped off by the clown's dad. The clown doesn't reply.
"Told you this was going to be weird for you, but you wouldn't have it, would you?" says Tom. Quietly; not points-scoring.
Mark: "I'm not having second thoughts. Just… remembering. It's not morbid to visit the place Granddad died. It was more than 11 years ago. I was barely at school. Yeah, it's a bit sad. But I'm happy I'm doing the right thing − saying goodbye properly.
"Look. He didn't die in some awful car crash. Yes, he died too young - still a few years before he retired - but he went peacefully. Felt ill, probably. Lay down to rest in the hotel where he loved working, and his heart just stopped beating. Very sad. But it happens."
"Yeah. Still weird, though. In a bed-linen storeroom. With the door locked from the inside. Why do you think…"
Further conversation is futile after the arrival of a contingent they recognise of Red Riding Hoods, Rapunzels and fairies, all shrieks and high spirits. Chanelle Boyd centre-stage. Blackest of black hair. Reddest of red lips. Wickedest of Snow White's Wicked Stepmothers.
Further back, less-vivid outfits homemade rather than hired from the over-priced fancy-dress shop, is a smaller and quieter gang. Those who would rather bite their lips until they bled than shriek, stumble and sway in public.
Claire Smith nods. Just. "Awright, Mark. Tom." The shape of her mouth always flat-lining. Air-kissing not required. Tonight a Gretel in beige, with brown canvas bag, she's more usually in Mark's chemistry class. Top of the class.
The wicked stepmother approaches, having felt on her metaphorical web the vibrations of new arrivals. The potential for amusement. "Claire. Hiii. Your outfit. Gorgeous. So… rustic. Charity shop sale?"
No-one breathes… and then the tension is released by a circus ringmaster - a fake spear going through his chest and out the other side.
"Ladies and gentlemen - welcome! Time for the scariest night of your life!"
This saves Claire - pathologically unskilled at defusing a situation with a light touch - making a no-win choice: playing a bully's game, accepting a submissive role and hating yourself for your timidity, or dealing with it assertively but enduring the embarrassment of a public scene.
"Please, keep together and listen to instructions," says the ringmaster. "Even ghouls have to comply with health and safety…" And then they are off, through the dark warren of narrow corridors.
The event team has done a great job: "cobwebs" and "bats" dangling from the ceiling set off cascades of yelps; lights suddenly reveal faces in windows, lurching suits of armour, hands creeping round curtains; a literal skeleton in a cupboard. Screams as the lights of a chandelier go out.
It cranks up. An ethereal figure materialises and appears to float through a wall. "The spirit of Flossie Fluyd, killed in a fire in the 1920s," says the ringmaster.
Then the scariest moment - because it's the biggest surprise. A door flies open and "Mr Pickwick" rushes out, bumping into some of them. He's pursued by a hissing woman in a nightdress. She looks like Medusa, the mythical monster with writhing snakes instead of hair - though the serpents are only yellow bits of papers, which women used to curl their locks. What Dad was waffling about, plus a few tweaks, thinks Mark.
On they go. Then Tom stops. "Hey, look." He taps the window. "I didn't know anyone was jazzing up the road outside. Pukka. Think it's the people behind this event?"
Mark gazes. It's like a film set. Everything 21st Century has been covered up: modern "cobbles" under earth. A few thin souls, in rough brown cloth, trudge along the "street".
"Dad was banging on about the Great White Horse starting as just a tavern 500 years ago. Maybe the town's trying to pull in visitors with a Henry VIII-themed market this weekend. Looks really authentic. Lot of trouble and expense to go to, though."
Words from the ringmaster reverberate down the corridor. "Keep up, stragglers!"
In a claustrophobic cloakroom, where the thrill-seekers hear mysterious knocking in heating pipes, Tom knocks an old tweed jacket off a rail.
"Look at this," he says as he picks it up. There's a name-tag sewn in, old-school. John Stone. The man who had his last heartbeat in a nearby room.
"I suppose that, when the hotel shut, they just left behind all the things no-one claimed. Can't blame them," says Tom.
Mark holds the jacket, rubbing the tag. John Stone. Granddad.
Meanwhile, the water pipes are "singing". "The spirits are abroad in the kitchen. Let's find them!" cries the ringmaster. Most of the lights go out, half the group screams, and there's a rush for the door. Mark drops the jacket and a handful of cards tumble out.
"Here, Claire. Put this jacket in your bag for me, please, will you? I'll explain later."
"Sure." As economical as ever, though slight twitches at the corners of her mouth show she's pleased to be asked.
The lads scrabble on the floor to pick up the cards − like "Chance" cards in Monopoly. "Look at this," says Tom. "He's written 'Oil the floor'. And 'Broken staircase'. Your granddad's to-do list?"
"Well, he did all kinds of things here, including supervising a maintenance team. The old place was falling apart. Come on. Don't want to get left behind."
But they already are. Like Mr Pickwick in the story, the friends find themselves going round in circles, hearing no familiar voices in the near-distance.
Round a corner. Someone with a candle. Finally.
"Runaways! Got you! Move into the light so Mr Squeers can see you despicable devils. You've led us a merry dance this All Hallow's Eve."
Squeers. Mark's brain dredges the depths of his memory and somehow alights on the cruel, slightly deformed, headmaster of a boys' boarding school in Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. In the glow of the candle they see his blinded eye. The other eye seems to pin them down like butterflies exhibited in a Victorian museum. The make-up people have done a great job with this actor.
"Thank goodness. Someone who knows the way out," pants Tom. "We've lost our group. Can you tell us where…"
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"Silence! Boys will speak only when spoken to. We leave immediately for the school, where you will both be punished for your deeds and misbehaviour."
"Oh come on. We can drop the acting for a minute. We really do need to find…"
The flick of the willow switch - a cane - is swift and unexpected. Tom feels shock first. The sharp pain, and the wheal, follow. He touches his cheek. There's blood on his hand.
"This insolence will not be tolerated." Squeers clenches a fist and pulls it back. Mark's hand grabs his best friend, pulls him and runs.
Like balls in a pinball machine they bounce through the narrow passages - left, right, right, up, right, left. Doesn't matter which direction; it's "away" that's important.
They dodge into a big old pantry and, finally, stop - crouching in the darkness and listening hard to the silence. "What was that all about?" asks Mark, checking his friend's face in the gloom. "It doesn't look too bad, but we're definitely going to get that guy sacked. No way he should ever pass another criminal record check. That was actual bodily harm, that was."
Palms sweaty because of the physical exertion and adrenalin surging through his system from the shock and indignation, he wipes them on his stripy trousers (which now feel more than faintly ridiculous). His grandfather's old bits of card, he only now realises, are still clenched in his left hand.
"Ha. This one says 'Run!' Thanks Granddad, but you're a bit late. We'd figured that one out for ourselves." He's trying to lighten the mood. "The next one's that 'Broken staircase' card. We'll give that a miss."
Attempts to boost his friend's humour fail once they hear grinding and squeaking that draws nearer and nearer. Tom nudges his mate. "Look!" At the end of the pantry is a dumb-waiter, a lift system once used to send up food from the kitchens. Something is coming…
The instinct to flee and the curiosity to see what transpires are still fighting each other when − ting! − the squeaking gives way to a low snarl and growl. Squatting on the platform of the dumb-waiter is a bull terrier dog, sniffing the air malevolently. In a millisecond Mark thinks it looks familiar, and then realises why. Bull's-eye: thug Bill Sikes's ill-treated companion from the film Oliver! As in Twist.
"Now!" breathes Tom. They rise and run. No looking back. They know Bull's-eye is locked on like a missile, salivating and yelping.
This time the tight corridors and twisty turns prove their salvation. The beast gets close at one point, fangs clamping onto Mark's trousers and ripping off about 25cm of material, but he's a heavy-set dog, built for strength and not speed. The rapid turns hand the advantage to the humans.
"Got it! This way." The boys keep running but slow up. Bull's-eye, scenting victory, summons the energy for a burst of speed as they turn another corner.
"Stop!" cries Tom, pushing Mark left before he himself jinks to the right. The animal - unsighted, pushing hard, and judgment skewed by the promise of blood - fails to anticipate his fate.
The boys brace themselves against walls and just-strong-enough balustrades. The dog races between them and finds himself in air, paws searching in vain for non-existent stairs. Dropping fast.
"It's the old ballroom. My dad had his school-leavers' disco here, and says it was shabby then." In later years the outdoor equipment company displayed its tents where dancers once cha-chaed.
A few forgotten boxes, tent-poles and guy-ropes lie at the feet of naked mannequins that once promoted the latest water-repellent, heat-retaining, "breathable" clothing for the discerning camper and fell-walker. The boys look at each other. "You know what's coming, don't you," says the clown. "Oh yes," replies the zombie.
An almost imperceptible creak. The turning of a plastic head on a plastic torso. Then another. A moulded mother and daughter. Bent on murder.
The mannequins amble towards their quarry, legs moving stiffly but arms whirling like windmills in a typhoon. "Like the Autons in Doctor Who," murmurs Tom. "We've become part of a cliché."
"You know what happens now," says Mark. He takes the next card off Granddad's pile and holds it up. "Guess what this says."
"Would that be 'Oil the floor'? Perhaps with that big drum of linseed oil standing rather conveniently a metre from your right foot?" "It would." In similar fashion to the dog, the mannequins find that axe-like hands turning at 250rpm do not make up for a lack of speed and agility - or a film of oil spreading across the floor and rendering them tractionless.
The boys slip away as their assailants collapse on the dancefloor. "It's a 'two' from me," grins Tom.
The lads are still high-fiving on the landing when they realise their celebrations are premature. The way ahead is blocked by a wailing Jacob Marley, swinging his heavy chains. The corridor to the right is guarded by a cudgel-wielding Bill Sikes, filling the space with his bulk.
"Looks like we go left," says Tom. "What does the next card say?"
"Just run! Back to the pantry. Left, left, then right."
They do. "And?" "Dumb-waiter." "You're kidding."
They squeeze in, a compartment each, and it actually works. They emerge in a dining room, laid out for a big wedding reception that never happened. Cobwebs mask the furniture. Beetles tread across the tablecloth.
"Oh good grief," sighs Mark. "Not Miss flipping Havisham too."
"Indeed it is," confirms a quiet but strong voice from the far end of the room, "and your lack of respect is typical of your sex."
The pair peer into the gloom and make out a woman at the head of the table, her wedding dress and veil just discernible amid the camouflage of the thick spider-webs.
"Men. They bring me nothing but misery. And" - screaming now - "I will tolerate it no more."
A spinning knife emerges from the darkness, misses Mark's ear by seven or eight centimetres and embeds itself in the wood panelling around the fireplace. A fork follows - its flight broken, mercifully, by a clash with a tall floral display. Then a volley: bottle, sugar bowl, pomegranate, glass, nutcrackers - and vitriol.
"I will not be denied. I WILL have my revenge."
The jilted bride picks up the knife that an age ago should have cut her wedding cake, and then it's a race for the door. The boys win and hare off down yet another corridor. As Miss Havisham gets up, her dress catches the tablecloth and upsets a candlestick.
"Card, Mark. Card!"
"'Straight ahead, left, up the stairs, left and right. Head for green double-doors by statue of Apollo. Oh - is something burning? You might want to hurry'."
They reach the doors. "Locked!" "Naturally," says Mark. "We'll have to put our weight behind it." They do. It doesn't budge. They shoulder-charge. Still doesn't budge. "Try the cards again!"
"It says 'Look behind you. PTO'." They turn. Miss Havisham advances steadily, like a tiger convinced it's cornered its prey.
Mark flips the card. "Stand as far back as you can. Cover your eyes. Now!"
Miss Havisham raises her weapon. Ready to strike. The boys slip to the side and crouch.
The doors buckle once, twice, and then twist on their hinges. Beams from the fire appliance's headlights flood in as it gives the doors a final squeeze - and, in that moment, the bride that never was crumbles to dust. Not that anyone sees.
Firefighters rush in, and soon extinguish what turns out to be quite a small blaze - old tablecloths having created more smoke than flame.
As the fire appliance moves back, and he's not dazzled by bright lights, Mark sees a lone young woman standing quietly: Gretel in beige, with brown canvas bag.
"Hiya," she says, punching his arm, gently. "Having an exciting Halloween?"
"So how did you know to rescue us?" asks Tom.
"Well, you didn't come out. The event organisers spent half an hour searching inside, while we waited. I was fiddling with the jacket - I love vintage stuff, even men's - and there was this card in the pocket: 'Claire: This will sound odd, but the hotel is on fire. Get the fire brigade to knock down the green doors. The boys will be on the other side. Do it. Now'.
"I'm not going to try to explain it. I can't. But I'm glad I was there to watch your back. By the way, Chanelle has gone on to a club. Got bored while the search was going on."
They hold each other's gaze for a few seconds.
"There was one more card." She hands it to him: "Drama over. You all know how things go now. Be yourselves. Trust your instincts. Live great lives."
The characters and narrative in this story are the work of imagination and have no link to any person alive or dead. And, of course, the Great White Horse is NOT the setting for any real-life event this Halloween.